A Lair Fit for a (Tiger) King

13 Jul

Mystic Tiger’s Nest in the mist (2016)

Well, no trip to Bhutan is complete without doing the trek to Takhtsang Goemba (“Tiger’s Nest” Monastery). Images of Tiger’s Nest always appear on any serious list of the world’s most incredible sights. We ended our trip in Bhutan where we had first arrived — in Paro. With an elevation close to 2,200m/7,200ft, the town of Paro sits at an appreciable height. The 4-mile roundtrip hike (about 5-hours) to Tiger’s Nest begins a few miles outside of Paro and the well-traveled path takes you up a sloping mountainside, across a stone bridge, and then up the cliffside where you gain another 1000ft or so before reaching the monastery. Tiger’s Nest is perched 900m/2,950ft off the ground at a total elevation of about 3,100m/10,100ft above sea level.


Starting the trek to Tiger’s Nest from the forest floor

This spectacular structure consists of 4 separate buildings. Its first building is called the Dubkhang (or Pelphu Lhakhang) and was originally built in 1692 to surround and encase the actual cave opening in the cliffside where Guru Rinpoche had meditated for 3 months back in the 8th Century A.D. The 4th Druk Desi (“secular ruler”) of Bhutan, Tenzin Rabgye, oversaw the building of the original Dubkhang. Guru Rinpoche had brought Mahayana Buddhism from Tibet to Bhutan, and so this cave site is considered the most sacred space in Bhutan. The origin story for how Guru Rinpoche found this cave is a foundational component of Bhutanese spiritual identity.  While in the form of the “Crazy Wisdom” manifestation known as Dorje Drolo, Guru Rinpoche flew to this lofty cliff on the back of a tigress he had subdued in order to meditate undisturbed and bury sacred Buddhist relics and texts. This image of the blue demon-like Dorje Drolo on the back of a tiger soaring through the sky is depicted in statues, murals, and paintings found in most Bhutanese monasteries and temples (see post: “Thunderbolts & Ringtones” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-11L for more context about the manifestations of Guru Rinpoche).


Prayer Wheel around midway point

The ability of Guru Rinpoche to meditate with such concentration where his form could, in a sense, shape-shift, depending on what Buddhist virtue he sought to embody or teach influenced all subsequent generations of Bhutanese Buddhist practitioners. Ultimately, it was this ability of Guru Rinpoche to control and harmonize elements of external, chaotic forces that inspired Tenzin Rabgye and the Bhutanese faithful of the 17th Century to build the Dubkhang that would serve as the model design for the later buildings that would form the Tiger’s Nest monastery complex.


First clear look at Tiger’s Nest

We started our hike up to Tiger’s Nest in the early morning and the cliffside above us was concealed in a cottony mist. Every once in a while, the mist lifted or parted and Tiger’s Nest would peer at us like some otherworldly beacon. The magnetic pulse of anticipation caused our feet to glide up the mountain, and although we took time to stop and appreciate the sights and scenery along the way, we reached the entrance gate much sooner than I had expected. We could not take cameras or bags inside Tiger’s Nest and checked them at the guard gate. Part of the reason for the intense security and checking of bags at Tiger’s Nest is that the monastery burned down (likely due to a fallen candle, but there are other theories) in 1998. It took 7 years for the country to rebuild its most famous landmark and the reconstructed Tiger’s Nest finally reopened to foreigners and tourists in 2005.


Takhtsang Goemba in all its majestic splendor

After clearing security, we walked up some stone steps and came to an open space that was similar to a rockface courtyard. Off to our right, a small path led inside the first building, the Dubkhang. We were now entering the center of the Bhutanese spiritual universe. The Dubkhang consists of a small stoney room that is decked out with a raised altar area and filled with Buddhist objects. On our lefthand side inside the room was an ornate brass door that was shut. This was the door that led into the the actual cave where Guru Rinpoche had meditated and buried relics and texts over a 1,200 years before. We were not alone in the Dubkhang. There was a caretaker monk who was seated on a stone area on the floor who had already begun his morning prayers. We sat cross-legged on the floor beneath the monk’s position and had the privilege of participating in a very intimate blessing for about 15 minutes. There were no other visitors or tourists in the Dubkhang during this time. It was just my friend and I and the monk. The spiritual energy flowing between us in the small space of the Dubkhang was harnessed by the monk’s chanting into a contemplative lightning bolt that electrified us. We were cracked open, raw, and filled by light. It was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.

DSCN1882 After our visit to the Dubkhang, we went inside each of the 3 other main buildings that make up the monastery complex. Each building is staggered above the other.  As I exited the last building, I noticed the rockface of the cliff was tightly angled overhead and there was a sign. I walked over to the sign and it said something about a tigress having made her den long ago within a deep passage below. I crouched and peered through a small opening in the rockface which led to this passage. I squeezed through this opening and then shimmied down 2 log ladders in near black conditions until I hit the floor. I saw a sliver of light that led me to another tight rock formation where I had to turn my body sideways in order slide between it. On the other side of this rock formation, there was a tiny oval-shaped area where one butter lamp candle was burning. This candle illuminated a framed picture of Guru Rinpoche as Dorje Drolo looking fierce and cocksure standing atop a flying tigress. Alone in this sacred and silent space, I was gripped in the hands of Dorje Drolo. I felt in my bones that I was standing in the beating heart of Tiger’s Nest. Each flicker of the butter lamp candle seemed to radiate outwards with boundless spiritual energy and love like the mantras emanating from the spin of a prayer wheel. After a few moments of quiet reflection, I turned around and followed the dancing shadows of the candle’s glow off the cave walls until I returned to my stone portal of entry.


Security Check/Entrance to Tiger’s Nest


On our way out of Takhtsang Goemba, our guide led us over to a very dark part of a rock cave that was near the Dubkhang. At the back wall of this cave, he stooped down and showed us a pool of black cave water. He pulled out a silver spatula near this pool and motioned us over to be blessed with this holy cave water. Without hesitation, we darted to him and he took turns carefully pouring the dark water into our open hands. We eagerly brought our hands up to our mouths and drank. And then — rather quickly — something happened. It began with a slight tightening of my stomach. As we began our descent, I felt cold beads of sweat pop up on my forehead and my earlier hunger pangs were now gone. This was strange because we had not had anything to eat after starting the climb early that morning. The plan was to have lunch at the restaurant found near the midway point as we hiked back down. But, when we arrived at this restaurant and I sat down to eat my food, I wasn’t able to have anything more than a couple of spoonfuls of rice. I had completely lost my appetite. By the time we had returned to our car, I was getting hit by waves of chills.


A bit of a queasy descent

Back at the hotel, I gamely tried to tell our guide and driver that I was still looking forward to hanging out with them later that evening since this was our last night in Bhutan. Our guide had previously said he was going to take us out for a night of fun in Paro. I never made it out that night. As soon as I went to my room, I dove under the covers of my bed and was shivering uncontrollably. Then, I felt some ungodly convulsion coarse through my innards and I flew out of the bed and into the bathroom where I vomited over and over with such viciousness that I thought I must have damaged something in my throat. I was destroyed and could barely pick myself up from the bathroom floor. A few hours later after drinking a mix of soda and some powdered electrolytes, I shuffled to the lobby where my friend and our guide and driver were waiting. I was astonished to see that for the first time our guide and driver were not wearing their traditional Bhutanese gho garb. Instead, they were clad in jeans and “modern” attire. They took one look at me and knew I would not be able to go out with them. I apologized and was disappointed that my last night in Bhutan had ended up like this.


Kyichu Lhakhang (Paro, Bhutan) built in 8th Century. Contains a revered statue of the Buddha at 12 years of age made from a cast of the original statue found inside the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa

The next day, I woke up and was relieved to know that I had returned to my body. I was still a bit weak and light-headed, but had the strength to pack up my things and get myself ready for the long travel day ahead. Our guide and driver met us one final time and drove us to the airport. I don’t remember if my guide was the one who mentioned this to me or not, but I learned something very interesting about Tiger’s Nest soon afterwards. Many Bhutanese believe that making an offering and praying at Tiger’s Nest allows for the cleansing of one’s soul. However, a known side effect of this washing away of one’s sins is that many faithful who visit for the first time end up vomiting. The Bhutanese view this vomiting as the physical manifestation of the expunging of past sins and the rebirth of a new body.  Wow.  I can honestly say I had the most visceral puking session of my life due to my visit to Tiger’s Nest. Whether that may mean I had a lot of sins that needed to be expelled from me or not, I was nevertheless acutely enriched by the experience and it’s one that I would not trade for anything else. But, I did also learn an important lesson that has served me well since: Don’t drink cave water.

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